Sonoma County leadership splintered as coronavirus emergency presents new challenges
With her children in bed and the clanging sounds of her husband doing dishes in the background, Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins went live from her Forestville living room on social media. Residents across the county had been ordered to stay home, and she told about 2,600 watchers about the latest developments in the county’s mission to test more people for the coronavirus, especially high-risk groups like health care workers.
Fielding questions in real time from county residents, Hopkins’ videos in front of her fireplace are her way of being with the people she represents, residents of the west county, when she like everyone else is barred from being in close proximity with others - counter to her instincts in an emergency.
“This disaster even more than prior disasters is going to depend on the ability to communicate effectively with the public,” said Hopkins, who has stood apart among local leaders with her detailed and regular updates for constituents about the emerging crisis.
The new coronavirus sweeping the globe has infected at least 54 people in Sonoma County and caused at least one death while upending life in ways that even the county’s historic wildfires did not. It has delivered an immediate, severe economic blow, costing untold thousands their jobs in the county, and cast a pall of uncertainty over the everyday safety of its half million residents, including 70,000 public school students and up to 30,000 college students who are unlikely to return to classrooms until the fall.
That is the fallout so far from an intangible, invisible threat - a virus easily transmitted and the disease it causes, COVID-19, which as of yet has no known cure.
“You can get it from someone by just going out,” warned Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s new public health officer, stressing the need for people to remain at home.
Under her March 17 order and the overriding statewide mandate from Gov. Gavin Newsom just two days later, only those with “essential” business or jobs are allowed to regularly venture out while all wait for the crisis to subside. Newsom said on Tuesday that it could be as long as 12 weeks.
That unsettling message came in one of the many daily public briefings Newsom has stepped forward to give on the spread of the coronavirus in the state and its implications for schools, hospitals, government, business and other key institutions. Newsom’s matter-of-fact, data-laden updates, along with his first-in-the-nation shutdown order, have put him in a group of elected officials, among them New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who are earning distinction for a strong, straight-forward and public-facing approach to leadership amid the emergency.
But in Sonoma County, the crisis appears to lack a public commander in local government. Instead, the emergency has done more to isolate the county’s elected officials and splinter public leadership, more so now than in the unprecedented fires of 2017 and 2019. Then clear authorities emerged, from the ranks of law enforcement and city and county government, giving daily, transparent updates broadcast to the community.
The vacuum has been discernible in public messaging, some residents say, and in the dearth of information coming from private hospitals and health care companies that have muzzled the doctors, nurses and others on the front lines of the crisis.
“I know leaders in our county have done things, but it’s not been enough,” said Santa Rosa resident Ursula Kremer, a substitute teacher who has been sick for weeks with what she and her doctor suspect is COVID-19. “I don’t feel like anyone has my back.”
Although she visited Sutter Santa Rosa’s testing site on Hoen Avenue, she said a health care worker there apparently decided she was a low priority case and tested her for influenza instead.
“There is no one here saying we’re going to have our eyes open and find out what’s going on here so this doesn’t get out of control,” Kremer said.
County supervisors said they have stepped up to stay connected with people in the districts they represent and are deliberately taking a back seat, letting public health officials and leaders of the main medical providers drive the response.
“We want people to listen to doctors’ orders and not politicians’ orders,” Supervisor James Gore said.
Supervisors are looking to Mase, 53, an infectious disease expert with past stints at the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who only earlier this month stepped into the job as the county’s chief health authority after her predecessor moved to Atlanta for a job with the CDC. Mase’s first day on the job, March 10, came 24 hours before the WHO declared the coronavirus a global pandemic.